Emily Dickinson’s ‘scraps of paper’ inspire art installation at poet’s Amherst conservatory

The Emily Dickinson Museum is hosting its first-ever site-specific installation, “In Suspension,” in the conservatory.
The Emily Dickinson Museum is hosting its first-ever site-specific installation, “In Suspension,” in the conservatory.Emily Dickinson Museum/Globe staff

AMHERST — “My flowers are near and foreign, and I have but to cross the floor to stand in the Spice Isles,” Emily Dickinson wrote in an 1886 letter.

Dickinson was talking about her conservatory: a narrow room with floor-to-ceiling windows attached to her Amherst home. Her father, Edward, built the conservatory for Dickinson and her sister Lavinia in 1855. There, the reclusive poet tended to heliotropes, jasmine, and other plants from around the world, in a light-filled addition mere steps from the dining room.

Subsequent owners tore down the structure. But in 2017 the Emily Dickinson Museum rebuilt the conservatory as it looked in Dickinson’s lifetime, using some preserved bits of the original.


Now, in place of potted plants, museum-goers who visit the conservatory will encounter something new: a bench for sitting, and dozens of painted strips of paper hanging in an arch overhead, swaying gently in the breeze from a fan below.

Artists Tereza Swanda, Ingrid Pichler, and Fletcher Boote collaborated on the art installation, “In Suspension,” which includes painted rectangles of color, vinyl Plexiglass sheets on windows, and recorded vocals by Boote that resonate in the small space. The exhibit, the first site-specific artwork in the rebuilt conservatory, will remain on view until Sept. 9.

Program director Brooke Steinhauser said in a phone interview that the idea to bring contemporary art into the conservatory emerged, in part, out of necessity. Originally, the museum filled with the room with period-appropriate plants. But in the summer, the glass-enclosed space gets hot — too hot for most plants to survive, it turns out.

So in April, Steinhauser sent out a call for artist submissions. In just one month, more than 70 artists — from India, Australia, Greece, and across the United States — submitted proposals.

Swanda, an artist based in Swampscott, won the $3,000 artist stipend. She reached out to Pichler and Boote, and the three spent one month putting their exhibit together. A team of women, mostly friends of the artists, helped paint the rectangular scraps of paper and suspend them overhead with translucent wires, creating a distinctly D.I.Y. feel.


Swanda said in a phone interview that she took inspiration from Dickinson’s poems, many of which were written on small pieces of paper or envelopes. “I was thinking about those scraps of paper she left behind,” Swanda said. “I wanted it to be ephemeral.” She used everyday materials — cardboard boxes, recycled paper, and old postcards — and painted in greens, blues, and grays to mimic the surrounding sky and landscape, visible through the glass windows. The exhibit’s name also refers to a Dickinson poem: “Wonder — is not precisely knowing / and not precisely not —” it begins. Later, the poet describes “suspense” as the “maturer Sister” of wonder.

Visitors can sit on the low bench and meditate, or write down their own poems or reflections on note cards nearby. “It’s a space of peace away from all of the museum noises,” Pichler, another artist involved in the show, said in a phone interview. She contributed the Plexiglass squares that hang on the windows and refract green, purple, and orange light into the space. “It gives you time to just gather your thoughts and step back a little bit,” she said.

After this exhibit closes, the Museum plans to reinstall plants in the space, Steinhauser said. She hopes to fund another site-specific installation for another summer in the near future. This renewed emphasis on art programming comes at an exciting time for the museum, which recently received a $22 million gift, the biggest in its history. Those funds are earmarked for improving the grounds and renovating buildings, but Steinhauser said that she looks forward to interpreting new spaces in the coming years.


The conservatory, as one of Dickinson’s links to the natural world, is a good place to start. “[Dickinson] certainly saw the conservatory as a creative space,” Steinhauser said. Her time spent gardening seeped into her poetry: mice, roses, daffodils, and frost became metaphors for death, love, and spirituality. Dickinson would jot down ideas for poems as she did household chores. “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – / I keep it, staying at Home – / With a Bobolink for a Chorister – / And an Orchard, for a Dome,” she wrote.

“So, you do have the sense that, as she’s tending to these flowers, she might also have been composing,” Steinhauser said. “You know — pulling inspiration up by the root.”


At the Emily Dickinson Museum, 280 Main St., Amherst, through Sept. 9. 413-542-8161, www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org

Nora McGreevy can be reached at nora.mcgreevy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mcgreevynora.